Kill the Bill and beyond – NUT Mander Hall 11th February 2016

On 11 February 2016, the IER, Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, People's Assembly, Class and the Trade Union Coordinating Group held their second joint rally, bringing together representatives of the host organisations to oppose the Trade Union Bill.

Commentary icon17 Feb 2016|Comment

James Harrison

National Coordinator, IER

The meeting took place as part of the TUC’s I Heart Unions week and was held on the very day that Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt imposed dangerous new contracts on junior doctors, that were overwhelmingly rejected by NHS staff.

Tony Burke, who was chairing the meeting started by introducing the speakers. He talked about the Tory’s Trade Union Bill, describing it as purely an ideological attack on trade unions. He believed this was the Tory’s move towards a one-party state, and that if we are forced outside the law in resisting it, then so be it.

Angela Eagle, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Labour

Angela started by saying that she believed the TU Bill is a partisan piece of legislation that has been meticulously designed to prevent trade unions, as organisations, from administering themselves appropriately. To back this up she highlighted the attacks on the automatic union subscription deductions system “check off” and also facility time cuts for trade union representation. She referred to the fact that the TU Bill brings masses of blue tape down on the unions to make them more difficult to operate, and said the Bill is estimated to bring £36 million of costs on trade unions over five years.

In addition, she pointed out that the costs to the Labour Party are estimated to be £35 million in donations over five years, which effectively cuts off one-third of the funding Labour would expect to receive during this time. Meanwhile, the Toryies have shamelessly increased the number of their government advisors, and given them pay rises!

Angela noted there have been some minor adjustments made to the Bill in the Commons on picket supervisors having to wear armbands, but that it has been significantly harder for the Tories in the House of Lords, as it’s the first time ever that they have faced a situation where they don’t have a majority there. She stated that we have had some wins on Clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill (political fund opting-in and reporting of political expenditure).

The Shadow Secretary then presented a letter from Nick Boles MP, which was recently leaked to the press. In this letter, Boles wrote to other government departments to prepare to make concessions on the Bill in the Lords; however, Angela reflected that the concessions discussed in the document amount to very little, such as committing to a ‘review’ on e-balloting, not a firm commitment to introduce e-balloting.

Angela added that even Nick Clegg disagrees with the TU Bill, and that we need to keep up campaigning pressure in the country too. She said this was key now, especially so in light of the fact that the “Gagging Act” was brought in during the Coalition government in order to shut down opposing organisations and charities speaking out in criticism of the government during the run-up to a general election. She said that the Tory’s have gone one step further and are now telling charities that they can’t lobby the government at all. She believed their approach to any civil liberties is to silence dissent and to use law in an anti-democratic way.

She concluded by saying that we need to keep up the pressure and make them pay for the course of action they have chosen to take.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the CWU

Dave opened by stating that we need to keep building pressure against the Bill and not rely on the parliamentary process altogether. He is not just worried about measures in the Bill, but essentially all fascist laws designed to wipe out opposition to the government’s agenda. He said we need to keep getting people on board for this campaign.

The tired old arguments that new technology will offer benefits shared with workers (such as more leisure time for workers) has been proved false, he said. Instead, the only innovation that workers have seen is an increase in insecure employment. He believed that we have to get the message out there that restricting working people’s freedoms is wrong, and that we need to work together across unions to work on a strategy to overcome these attacks.

Dave argued that we need to do 4 key things:

  1. Use this Bill as a catalyst to think about our former failures as a movement. We should coordinate our work and perhaps decide on taking forward four key things that we go in and bargain on.
  2. Organisation of workers.
  3. Put at the forefront of the Labour Party a new deal for workers and concentrate on what we actually want. We in Britain need a new deal for workers.
  4. Redesign the movement for the benefit of workers today.

Paul Nowak, TUC Assistant General Secretary.

Paul thanked the Labour Party for their help in fighting the Bill. He said we need to fight industrially, organisationally and also politically. Expressing pride in being a trade unionist in this country, he said the Bill is really about undermining TU’s ability to represent workers and the right to strike. The Bill is a nasty and pernicious piece of legislation, he continued, posing the question: “Who do the public trust? Six million trade unionists? Or Jeremy Hunt? Six million trade unionists? Or George Osborne? Or Cameron?” He pointed out that even Cameron’s own mother is complained about the cuts!

Paul stated that last year the TUC organised a mass lobby of parliament. He believes we need to keep the pressure and the campaigning up, suggesting that if despite all of our efforts the Bill still gets on the statute books, we need to keep the movement going. He reported that in Palestine, in the occupied territories, there is a nursery workers who have just set up a union. He argued that if you can’t extinguish trade unionism there, then you can’t do it here either.

John Hendy QC, Old Square Chambers and IER Chair

John said that it is important for the TUC and unions to follow the reports from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). He explained that the ILO was set up in 1919 and it lays down minimum international standards for labour. It has a tripartite system (government, business and trade unions), and Convention 87 lays down the fundamental right for TU’s to organise.

The IER Chair believes that trade unions should be able to decide their own constitutions and their own activities, such as the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining. He referred historically to the movement seeing off these attacks in the past.

Furthermore, he informed the meeting that the ILO reviews how well countries are operating in line with these minimum standards every year, and that the UK was the first country on earth to ratify Convention 87: Nye Bevan did this.

John reported that last week the ILO condemned the Tory government’s TU Bill and that its criticisms were numerous. He revealed that the Bill hammers the point of a need for a 40% threshold in important public services; however, the ILO has rightly said that transport and education are not essential services! John reflected that it was unfortunate that the ILO have conceded to the 50% turnout threshold as reasonable, but argued that we will put in another, larger submission to the ILO next year, as they may have missed a couple of points.

The law expert reflected that the 50% turnout enforcement is decided by the employer (not the members), which is anti-democratic, and firmly stated that employers should not be tampering with union democracy and the right to strike. He believes this is an infringement of the right of trade unions to determine their own constitutions, and expanded on this point by saying that members should decide what ballot thresholds they want. See the ILO’s report here.

Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary

Dave opened by asserting that working people didn’t create this recession. He said that the Trade Union Bill is a nasty ideological and partisan measure, intended to choke off our movement at a time when workers are already under unprecedented attack. He reflected that it’s bad for women, workers and patients. He believes it is a law designed to bat off criticism of the Tories at a time when there is everything to criticise, and surmised that it is the biggest crackdown on TU rights in the last 30 years, going much further than Thatcher ever did.

The trade union leader went on to say that whilst Tories complain about “unnecessary” red tape for business, they themselves are tying up Trade Unions in administration. However, he believed they have underestimated the strength of our movement. He promised that Unison will meet with other General Secretaries to formulate a strategy to fight the Bill, and stated that even if we get electronic balloting, the thresholds are anti-democratic and we shouldn’t settle for it.

Dave informed the meeting that check-off is used for a number of purposes, such as giving to charity, paying for a bicycle and paying back student loans. He rightly questioned why TU members are being banned from this system when it works so well for other methods of payment? He stated that the ban on check-off doesn’t make any sense, and that if the legislation goes through, even as amended, it’s not the end of the story.

We have to get this fascist government out, he said, affirming that if Labour get in, we will not allow anti-TU legislation to stay on the statute books. Dave reflected that we already have the most restrictive anti TU laws in the world, and this Bill goes even further. He concluded by saying that we want all the anti-TU legislation repealed altogether, including Thatcher’s.

Audience contributions:

A point was made from the audience that we need to escalate resistance quickly. We have to realise they are going to try and smash us and we need to break their rules. We also need to flood support for the Junior Doctors, as can’t let them be broken, because if it’s them first, it will be us next.

Another audience member talked about e-ballots. We can’t settle for the concession of e-ballots, as they know this is the bare minimum they can give us; we need to fight the whole thing in its entirety. More importantly we need workplace ballots too to re-engage in workplace democracy. We need to be honest, the movement not in a good state, we need to reinvigorate our trade unions and organise.

Chris Stephens MP, SNP

Chris opened his speech by stating he is a proud trade unionist, and highlighted that the Tories are not ‘hard working tax payers’. They describe industrial action as an inconvenience to business and society, but Chris reflected that is the very point of it: to disrupt!

He affirmed that they have no idea about the role of real trade unionists in the workplace, and the Tories are losing their basic arguments. He referred to the Nick Boles MP leaked letter and said that the Tories are clearly talking tough in public and capitulating in private. He believes that nonsense arguments have been thrown out by the Tories on the lack of security with e-balloting, stating that if e-balloting was good enough to select a potential Tory running candidate for the London mayoral election, then it is good enough for Trade Unions.

Chris affirmed that the SNP’s view is that we need to scrap the whole Bill. He completed his speech by saying that the Bill is not just a financial attack on the Labour party, but also one on funding and TU support for other organisations that speak out in dissent of the Tories.

Fatima Aguado Queipo, FSC-CCOO, Spain

Fatima commenced her speech by saying that in the Airbus dispute in Spain there has been gross victimisation of Spanish TU reps for standing up for their rights. She revealed that there are more than just the eight reps that have been sentenced; there are another 300 people accused of picketing. She believes this is an anti-constitutional attack on the country of Spain.

Fatima argued that Jeremy Hunt is insulting our intelligence by his posturing on the Junior Doctors’ strike in the UK. She rightfully stated that this is totally unacceptable, and that we have a proud movement that is built on doing what is right. She contrasted this point by stating that the Tories are limiting fundamental rights and that this is not something leaders do, it is cowardice! She believes the Tories are limiting democracy and asserted that cowards do not make good leaders. She believed that cowards in leadership become dangerous because they try to force their ideas through.

The trade unionist stated that the Tories are trying to divide working class people. She believes that the Tories know we are right, and pointed to the fact that, we, the labour movement are the last wall to stop a savage capitalism. She claimed that they will try to crush us, but they won’t be able to do it, because we have something more important than them: people. She asserted that pickets are not criminals and referred to having the right to strike in international law. She finished her speech with a rallying call: “We will never surrender; together we will fight this battle”.

Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary

Christine started by stating that we are going in the wrong direction legislatively, and said Professor Keith Ewing and John Hendy QC’s book The Right to Strike: Kill the Bill is worth a read. Christine referred to the efforts of the late Tony Benn, who tried to get the right to strike enshrined in law, but sadly there wasn’t the support for it at the time. She stated that the Tories see the TU Bill as unfinished business with the unions, because we still have power and we are opposing austerity. She believes we have to take the opportunity to be honest in that we are weaker now than 30 years ago, but we have to go out and organise.

The trade union leader added that Nick Boles’ leaked letter shows some very minor concessions, so the Bill is still a massive attack on unions. Christine pointed to some of these concessions specifically, such as social media monitoring and having to report what you are going to say in advance, as well as armbands for picket supervisors, which are now gone from the Bill, but it’s still essentially about criminalising picketing. She stated that the Welsh Assembly is saying good things about keeping check-off, which should be commended, and told the meeting that the TU Bill doesn’t comply with the convention on human rights.

Christine also said the Tories are trying to shut down dissent on parents’ objecting to their children’s schools becoming private academies. She signed off by saying that we need the Labour Party to have a proper charter of rights, but that is a long way away, so we need to prepare and campaign against the Bill now.

Audience Contributions:

One audience member raised the need for a national demonstration and to find a way to include workers who are not currently involved in the TU movement.

Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary

Mark posed the question: “What are we going to do now in this crucial time?”. He also asked “What’s our response going to be when the legislation gets passed and on to the statute books?”. He made the point that the concessions in the leaked letter are ok, but the Bill is still a massive attack on the movement. He asked: “What can we learn?”.

The trade unionist informed the meeting that Ian Lavery MP is now consulting unions on a charter for workers’ rights, and reflected that it is great that we have support of the SNP, Scotland and Wales. Mark said that since we met last (at the July 2015 TU Bill rally), we have seen massive cuts in the public sector. He believes we need to be educating members and workers and we need to stop internal fighting and focus. The trade union leader asked the question: “If you’re in a public sector union, what if we all went on strike against these pay cuts, pension cuts and redundancy cuts?”. He said we need to send a clear message to the government and a coordinated strike would do just that.

Mark reflected that it is no coincidence that we get low turnouts from postal ballots, as all postal ballot turnouts are low. He reported that these thresholds were set on purpose because the Tories know postal ballots turnouts are traditionally low (so they can then criticise us for a low turnout). Mark firmly said that we should start organising strikes now, and referred to the fact that there are currently cuts to tax offices and job slashes coming in to force, which we need to fight now!

He added that where we are engaging with members on serious issues and strategies, ballot turnouts are high. He believed we need to stand up now against the attacks, on principled issues, and that we should coordinate amongst unions. He also suggested that we should commit to unions now preparing for a summit for rank and file members, so that if the Bill becomes law we can have a strategy to still be able to operate and support each other. Mark finished by saying that an attack on one is an attack on all, so let’s fight it together.

Professor Keith Ewing, King’s College and IER President

Keith started by saying: “No to blacklisting and no to victimisation”. He asserted that we need to make sure we have a right to collective bargaining and to be covered by a collective agreement.

Historically, we have won this by having a Ministry of Labour, which represented the working people of this country, he explained. Keith expanded on this by saying that it was the Ministry of Labour’s responsibility to make sure collective bargaining is maintained.

He stated that we also need to make sure we have the right to organise and the right to strike needs to be properly enshrined in law. The right not to be dismissed or replaced (by agency staff) if you are withdrawing your labour, Keith believes, is equally as important. He also said that we need a right to a political voice. On this, there does not need to be opt-in or out of a political levy, as Keith believes a union should be free, if it has made the decision to affiliate to a party, to support that Party.

Keith said we should restore the ability for unions to speak out, which was restricted by the Gagging Act. He said that we should maintain the right to our own democracy, not allow the state or employers to impose thresholds and rules whilst overriding union democracy. He affirmed that it is not the place of the state to impose anything, as it should be up to the union to decide its own rules and thresholds. Keith finished by stating that when thinking about the future we need to be considering a vision of the kind of trade unionism that we want, the legal rights we want and the place we want to hold in our society.

Mick Cash, General Secretary of the RMT

Mick said this government has an agenda. He noted that while the Government might have the numbers in Parliament, we have the numbers on the ground and we are growing. He reminded people that only 11 million out of the 44 million electorate voted for the Tories in 2015, highlighting that they cannot hit a 50% threshold themselves.

The trade union leader said the Bill constitutes a serious attack on working people, and the Tory plan is clear: to stop unions from opposing what the Tories want to do (for instance, to neuter us politically and industrially). Mick asserted that such attacks can be resisted, as RMT had check-off taken away in 1990s, but continued to grow and grow. He told the audience that unions need an organising agenda to get more people into the trade union movement. He concluded by saying that we should act now, and reject this legislation if it comes into force.

Mick Whelan, General Secretary of ASLEF

Mick Whelan described the TU Bill as “an attack on the fundamental rights of all those in civil society”, and “a further attempt to shackle not only the voice of trade unions but the very thoughts and actions of the many”.

He argued that the ideologically driven policies in the Bill aim to subjugate workers, and that the trade union movement must fight back by campaigning, or ignore or disobey the new legislation if it comes to that.

Recalling David Cameron’s former pet project the “Big Society”, Mick pointed out that it is the trade unions that are the real big society in the UK. But the unions have not had such a positive communal effect with support from the government; instead the big society has been upheld despite physical attacks, imprisonment and blacklisting.

He called on the movement not to allow the Tories to mislead the public on what trade unions stand for, and that it is our job to inform the population of what we actually do: That the labour movement is democratic and speaks on behalf of the people; it is not led from the top by General Secretaries and Presidents as the right-wing press would like them to believe.

Mick concluded by saying we need to stand together as a population to oppose and actively fight laws that are not in the interests of the people.

Steve Turner, Unite Assistant General Secretary

Steve said that the Tory Government was failing to deal with the real issues facing workers and were instead wasting time legislating against trade unions. He said the Trade Union Bill is an outright attack on the excellent work trade unions do against racism, cuts and closures and told the audience that we cannot let the contents of the Bill be enforced – not on our watch! He said when trade unionists stand up against bad laws, we walk in the footsteps of giants: Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, the suffragettes. Steve reminded the rally that the UK trade union movement has a proud history of civil disobedience. He said it’s our duty and our responsibility to resist the Bill and asked: “If not now, when?”

On that resounding note, the Rally ended and delegates contributed £60 to a collection in support of the rally and the work done by CTUF and IER against the Bill.